If Russell Wilson is going to improve upon the best season by a quarterback in Seahawks history, it won't be because his arm becomes stronger or more accurate, nor will it be because he gets faster or more elusive. Instead, what Wilson knows can help him grow the most as a quarterback is improving in the mental side of the game, particularly before the ball is even snapped.
Pre-snap, Wilson's job is to not only recognize what kind of coverages defenses are using against him—something he was incredibly successful at in the second half of last season as he and the offense finished the year on fire—but also to make sure he and the rest of the offense are on the same page when it comes to pass protection.
"I think my biggest thing is that I'm trying to be a master at protection," Wilson said. "When I got back in the summertime, as I was watching film, just continuing to study and do all that. When you think of guys like Peyton Manning, like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, they're great at it."
Wilson will always have an advantage over most quarterbacks because of what he can do when the protection isn't there—see last week's touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett, for example—but he also knows that the best play is one in which a Houdini-esque escape is not required.
"I think it's a big part of the game, (it's good) to always have the escapability and all that stuff, but I just want to see how far I can go, how far I can push the limit, how much I can study in terms of all the blitzes and all the looks," Wilson said. "I've always been prepared, but how much more can I be prepared but also anticipate and also put us in a perfect position that really put the defense at a disadvantage. Just knowing the weaknesses, knowing our strengths, trying to do that."
Whether or not Wilson has achieved that "master" status yet remains to be seen, but coaches have seen growth as he heads into his fifth season following a year in which he led the NFL in passer rating while breaking several franchise passing records. Making Wilson's growth all the more impressive is that he's doing it behind a new-look offensive line.
"He's grown a lot with all the changes that we've made," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "As you know, all the five (offensive linemen) are in different spots. If any of them are returning, they're not at their same spot. He has to get on the same page with those guys. I think he's done a great job of spending some time with (center Justin Britt). Justin has worked really hard at being right in making the calls. But Russell put a lot of time in, and he and (quarterbacks coach Carl Smith) spent a lot of time working on protections, talking about looks, watching tape. They do it each and every day. Any questions that come up, we get them straightened out. I think he's done a really nice job. It's been an important part for us."
For Wilson, adjusting to a new center has been easier because Britt has been a starting lineman for the Seahawks the past two years, first as a right tackle, then as a left guard. The relationship those two have formed as teammates make the transition smoother than it would be if a brand new player were being thrown into the mix at center, Wilson said.
"Britt and I have gotten really close, because ever since he got here, our lockers were pretty much next to each other," Wilson said. "It was me, (J.R.) Sweezy and Britt all right next to each other, so we all kind of joked around and had fun together. Britt, I've always been around his family a lot too, so we're really close already. That's an easy mesh and we've been doing great with that."
Part of Wilson mastering protection is recognizing what the defense is doing, but just as important is the way he and Britt communicate what they see to the rest of the offense. Even if Wilson knows exactly what kind of pressure a defense is bringing on a particular play, it won't do him any good if one lineman or running back or tight end is not on the same page as everyone else.
"We always tell those guys whether it's the line, whether it's the quarterback, if we're all on the same page, then at least we know our issues," Bevell said. "We have issues when the line is doing one thing and the quarterback thinks they're doing another. That's when the issues arise, so it's important for all of those guys to be functioning as one."
Wilson isn't done learning, not by a long shot—"Every week you see something new, learn something new and gain more knowledge," he says—but the improvements he has made prior to the snap, whether it's in reading coverages or in mastering protections, should help one of the league's best quarterbacks perform at an even higher level this season.
"It's everything, it's really everything," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson's ability to read things before the snap. "It's the system, it's the standard that we're coaching him too, the expectation of the concepts, and of course if he couldn't see what he's looking at, he'd be messed up. But he can, he's very well equipped. That's not an issue for him at all. He will always continue to get better, but that's all a part of it; it takes everything."
Check out the best photos from Wednesday's practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center before the Seahawks play the Oakland Raiders in the final preseason game of 2016.